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Hot or Not? Measuring the Success of Vista's First 100 Days

As Windows Vista reaches its first meaningful milestone--100 days of widespread availability, as measured from its January29 consumer launch--it's time to begin analyzing whether the product is truly successful. Back in March, Microsoft announced that Vista sales were record setting, with over 20 million licenses sold in its first 30 days, a rate that doubled that of its predecessor, Windows XP. And in April, when Microsoft announced record quarterly revenues of $14.4 billion, the company credited better-than-expected sales of Vista for the improvement.

Still, a shroud of controversy seems to cover Vista. Some high-profile tech bloggers have written of switching back to XP or even to the Mac, citing problems with the new OS. The Web seems full of Vista hardware and software incompatibility horror stories, with some suggesting that Vista should be renamed Windows Me 2, after the ill-fated Windows release from 2000. And some bloggers, in full Nancy Drew mode, have attempted to break down Microsoft's earnings in a dubious bid to prove that Vista isn't really selling as well as Microsoft claims.

So what's the truth? Over the coming weeks, Microsoft will answer these and other questions as it addresses that 100 days milestone. We can expect more information at next week's WinHEC (Hardware Engineering Conference), for example. But with the help from some numbers and statistics from Microsoft and other sources, I can shed some light on at least two measures of Vista's success.

Vista sales

First, let's look at sales. In calendar year 2006, PC makers sold about 230 million PCs worldwide, and analysts expect PC sales to jump by 8 to 11 percent this year. Assuming Vista is installed on most of those PCs--and it will be--you're going to see some pretty healthy numbers there no matter what. (Microsoft has conservatively estimated a Vista installed base of 100 million by the end of 2007.) But in Microsoft's world, corporate sales are king. And according to the company, corporate sales of Windows Vista--despite all those rumors--are actually running at almost twice the rate of the previous record holder, Windows 2000.

But don't take Microsoft's word for it. Gartner claims that Windows Vista will be installed on 4.2 percent of all business computers by the end of 2007. IDC has estimated the number at 5 percent. Meanwhile, Windows 2000 was installed on 2.6 percent of all business computers after a year on the market. Note that these figures are based on percentages of the overall market: Vista isn't getting an artificial boost because the PC market is larger today. Additionally, Information Week Research says that 25 percent of 612 businesses it surveyed are deploying Windows Vista now, and an additional 17 percent will begin deployments by the end of the year. That, too, is much higher than previous Windows versions, according to the publication.

Vista compatibility

Next, let's look at all those high profile bloggers and their problems with Vista. While one might question the technical acuity of a so-called tech guru who can't handle a brand new operating system, do these high profile Vista critics have issues that translate into widespread, real world problems? As it turns out, they do not. And this matches my own experiences, incidentally: As a reviewer, I've installed Vista on numerous hardware configurations and have run into precious few compatibility issues. And those I did have were quickly fixed right after Vista's consumer launch. So where are all these complaints coming from?

Obviously, some real compatibility issues do exist: Vista is a major Windows update with a completely rearchitected driver model, a newly secured kernel, and a new graphics stack. Anti-virus is an obvious area where Vista lagged behind at launch, though one might also make the argument that AV vendors knew Vista was coming for years before it shipped. (Today, all five major AV vendors have Vista-compatible products on the market, compared to just 3 of 5 at Vista's general availability.) Overall, the very public noise over supposed compatibility issues has completely drowned out reality: Most devices (and applications, for that matter) work just fine with Windows Vista.

Let's look at the numbers. At general availability in January, over 1.5 million devices were Vista compatible. Today, that number is 1.9 million. The company tells me that represents about 96 percent of the devices out there today. Sounds like a horrible level of compatibility, doesn't it? "We were more ready with ecosystem coverage--that is, application and device support--with Vista than we were with any other OS release," Windows Client Partner Platform Group Director Dave Wascha said. "This was a five year effort aimed at getting our partners and customers ready."

Additionally, Microsoft has added instrumentation to Vista so that customers can optionally provide the company with feedback when things go wrong. Thanks to this feedback, the company is making fixes at an unprecedented rate. More importantly, Microsoft is identifying the issues which are causing the most problems and fixing those first. Of the remaining 4 percent of incompatible devices, or about 70,000 devices, 4,000 account for about 80 percent of the problems. "This is our bogey list right now," Wascha told me in a recent briefing. "So we're on the phone with vendors, flying out to meet with them, and getting these issues addressed. Once that's done, we'll do it all again."

So what's the criterion for getting a device working in Windows Vista? Wascha told me that Microsoft will fix or create drivers for any device that generates 500 or more user reports. "We have legions of engineers dedicated to this one purpose," he said. "And we will continue to churn through that list." The only exception, of course, is drivers for devices that are no longer sold because the company that made them went out of business. "Unfortunately, the answer there is that it will never work," he said.

What's interesting is that Microsoft is caught in a Catch-22 in some ways. Customers want the company to innovate, but often don't like the side effects of that work. For example, to make Windows Vista more visually exciting, Microsoft changed the graphics architecture, but then some users complained that their video cards were no longer compatible. "Some people have had a less than stellar experiences with graphics cards," Wascha admitted. "This is a tiny minority of users. Unfortunately, it's been a vocal minority." While Wascha wouldn't pinpoint the culprit, in my experience, NVIDIA graphics cards have lagged behind those from ATI, though the gap appears to have shrunk in recent days.

And what about those high profile problems that the bloggers are grousing about? According to Wascha, those issues have never even shown up in Vista's instrumentation. That's right: These bloggers actually opted out of the program that Microsoft set up so that customers can help Microsoft solve problems and thus help other customers. And when the drivers do become available, you never see follow-up posts crediting Microsoft for fixing the problems. "We sit here and wrack our brains," Wascha said. "The drivers are out there."

Meanwhile, there are other pesky facts, which just don't correlate with widespread opinion pieces on the Web. With Vista, Microsoft is seeing one-third the number of security issues that it saw in XP's first 100 days. Application crashes are being addressed much more quickly as well. In a favorite example, Wascha noted an application crash bug that was reported on a Tuesday; Microsoft shipped a compatibility fix less than two days later. "We want to make sure that the perception out there about the product is accurate," Wascha said. "We're excited about the work we've done, and we know the system is working."

This article originally appeared in the May 9, 2007 issue of WinInfo Daily UPDATE. --Paul

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